You Can’t Stack Streams

The fight for physical media is real and true

The current situation at the RNRG editor’s desk

A recent article in Billboard, that venerable publication rightfully considered the Bible of the music biz, noted that CD sales, while declining, aren’t diminishing at the accelerated rate some so-called industry exports have described. Yes, sales are shrinking, but the fact that some rap and hip-hop artists aren’t releasing their music on CD, at least initially, has contributed to that predicament. Likewise, as it’s been touted time and time again, younger listeners don’t care as much for the album format like their elders once did. They’re essentially content to download or stream individual songs and listen to them on their phones and devices.

It’s safe to say that the growing number of platforms — be it Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, BandCamp or other streaming services — has made it easy for those desiring a quick hit to bypass the traditional music suppliers (read brick and mortar stores) and simply sample music online. Credit the folks behind Record Store Day for attempting to buck the trend, but their efforts equate to David fighting Goliath… Especially when you consider that Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and other retailers have slowly begun the process of pulling CDs from their shelves, eliminating a mainstream point of acquisition that likely won’t be filled.

If the trend towards inaccessibility of music in a physical form is inevitable, then what does that mean for the collector? Indeed, it’s hard to believe that there aren’t those who simply like to hold something tangible in their hands, gaze obsessively at the credits, enjoy the artwork and still enjoy the possibility of building a music library.

After all, it’s hard to stack a stream on a shelf.

More hoarding at the Hart house

I readily admit that I am what most people would consider old school. Given, I am of an older generation. I still remember the time when the arrival of a new album by the Beatles, or the Stones, Pink Floyd or the Who was considered an event, one that would be greeted with overwhelming anticipation. A new LP would lure us to the local record store where we would examine every new arrival with excitement and enthusiasm. We’d gaze longingly at the cover, scan the song titles, pick it up, fondle it, examine the credits, look over the lyrics and cherish the package as the   prized acquisition it was inevitably meant to be.

Not surprisingly then, I lament the fact that physical music is disappearing. Albums — whether they’re manifest as a CD, LP or hell, even a cassette (though I admit I don’t understand any reason for that revival) — are an art form, a calling card, a representation of an artist’s work in a very real physical form. It provides the artist with a more viable presence than the suggestion of something that exists only in cyberspace. It’s real and present in a tangible form.

Pundits say that the economics of the music business aren’t very healthy these days. Album sales are decreasing and the only way for most artists to make a living is to spend all their time on the road. I’ve had such venerable musicians as Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues and Al Stewart of Year of the Cat fame tell me that they see no point in making new albums anymore because there’s no radio to support them and people don’t seem interested in buying them. That’s a shame, because it allows what ought to be an iconic legacy to falter and fade, confining them to some sort of oldies circuit where nostalgia is the only factor that matters.

Even so, there seems to be an increasing amount of great music being offered these days from newer artists, even though much of it resides below the radar. And yet, without a physical representation of those efforts, many of these up-and-coming musicians are doomed to reside in some sort of amorphous, ambiguous state, especially when there’s no visible calling card to underscore their presence. It upends any prospective appeal.  There’s no visible signpost, making their art appear transient at best, and all that much easier to avoid or ignore.

Here’s the bottom line…when it comes to obsession with music, a commitment to collecting is best served by physical product. However for those whose musical interests extend only to individual songs, or a desire to have their music mobile, streams and digital downloads can easily suffice.

We’d venture to say that the industry is best served by the former, however.

The Billboard article said that CDs are largely a niche industry, much like vinyl has evolved into in recent years. Hopefully that will be enough reason for the record companies and individual artists to maintain production. Those of middle age and older still depend on CDs as the primary source for their sounds. So too, the diminishing numbers likely don’t reflect the numbers of CDs sold at concert merch tables where sales go untracked.

Ultimately, where there’s still supply, there’s also demand, and while some have sounded the death knell for CDs, we ought not plan their funeral just yet. Hopefully the record companies will come to realize that an industry without real product is one that’s doomed to disappear.


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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